Months of brutal preparation and training led to this moment. The University of Louisville was ready for their season opener as the Miami Hurricanes stormed into town.
Reporters and photographers surrounded the field, and the bright lights reflected against the green turf. After crowding tightly together in the team’s inflatable tunnel, the Cardinals soared out and ran to their sideline.
Tobijah Hughley looked around, smiled, and savored the feeling. After all of the struggles and adversity that came along with being a walk-on, none of it mattered anymore. He was about to make the first start of his career playing center as a Cardinal.“
A lot of people didn’t believe in me, saying I wouldn’t be starting,” Hughley said. “Just the feeling after that game was huge, I was jubilant.”Louisville defeated Miami 31-13.
“I always look up in the stands and see my mom and dad and family,” Hughley said. “The moment being with my parents after that game was a great feeling and just indescribable.”
That being said, Hughley’s road to Louisville football wasn’t smooth at first.
His journey all started when he was seven years old, playing for a little league football team called the Douglas Bearcats in Lexington.
“My dad introduced me to it, told me we were going to football practice one day, and it turned out I was pretty good at it,” Hughley said.
Hughley played baseball and football in middle school, and when he became a freshman at Lafayette High School in Lexington, it was time to hang up his glove and bat for good. He decided to stick with football.
“In high school, you start to get recruited around your sophomore or junior year,” Hughley said. “I was getting attention from some smaller schools around Kentucky, like Eastern Kentucky and Georgetown.”
While this attention flattered Hughley, he wasn’t as passionate about those schools as opposed to larger in-state schools, like the University of Kentucky.
“Up until my sophomore year, I thought I would go to Kentucky,” Hughley said. “But they wouldn’t offer me a scholarship or show me any attention, so that turned me off.”
One of Hughley’s high school coaches, Eric Shaw, knew that he was having a hard time making a decision on where he wanted to play at the collegiate level.
“I remember going through the recruiting process with him and talking about options, and he had some that were offering him scholarships,” Shaw said. “He was humbled by them, but he said to me, ‘I want to go where I want.’”
After a long and strenuous process, Hughley committed with Georgetown College. Although he lived in Lexington, he was born in Georgetown; Hughley had everything going for him there. He wouldn’t have to uproot himself or settle somewhere far, and his family would always be minutes away.
However, the summer before his freshman year in college, his entire thought process changed.
“I always thought it would be good to expand my boundaries, and go off and try something bigger and better, so I decided to walk-on to Louisville,” Hughley said.
Walk-ons are players that have to go through try-outs in hope that they can earn a spot on the roster. Walk-ons can gain scholarships similar to those of a scouted player. Before the start of the 2014-15 season, Hughley earned an academic scholarship which solidified that his risk had already begun to pay off.
“Once a player gets to campus, the opportunities are the same for each, whether they’re a walk-on or scholarship athlete,” Chris Klenakis, the Offensive Line Coach at Louisville, said. “It is what they make of the opportunity which will determine their success, and Tobijah has made the most of his opportunity.”
Hughley chose Louisville not only because he wanted to explore areas outside of his hometown, but also because he was a big supporter of Charlie Strong. Strong, the head coach at Louisville from 2010 to 2013, led the Cardinals to a 37-15 record, topping it off with a victory in the 2013 Sugar Bowl against Florida. In 2014 Bobby Petrino replaced Strong as Louisville’s head coach; Strong is now the head coach at the University of Texas.
When Hughley arrived on Louisville’s campus in the fall of 2012, there were older and more experienced players on the roster. He was assigned to scout team, where less experienced players analyzed the schemes that opposing teams use.
“I spent my first two years at Louisville on the scout team where I was in charge of giving the defense looks at the other team that we were about to play,” Hughley said.
During his first season on the team, Hughley redshirted, which is when a player sits out for a full season while still on the roster. By redshirting, a player can gain a year of athletic eligibility. A student-athlete could be a sophomore in the classroom, but a first-year player on the football field at the same time.
There were around 115-120 different players competing for a starting spot this season, and only about 15 of those players were walk-ons. Hughley embraced the challenge, and understood what it takes to get to the top.
“I was never scared of the scholarship players, never intimidated,” Hughley said. “I took [being a walk-on] as fuel. I had a chip on my shoulder.”
This “chip on my shoulder” mindset has stuck with Hughley ever since he arrived at Louisville, both on and off the field.
“The hardest part for me coming out of high school was realizing that it takes more than what I did then to play at a high level. Some people in high school can show up and be the best on the team. Some guys don’t weight lift, some don’t have to watch film,” Hughley said. “If you want to separate yourself and be the best at your position in college, it takes that extra work, it takes that extra hour of film, it takes that extra hour in the weight room to really separate yourself.”
Hughley kept his head up, knowing that his time would come, and everything would work itself out.
“Tobijah has worked extremely hard to get to the position of a starter,” Klenakis said. “As a center you have to have a great work ethic and think quickly, and Tobijah has developed those traits.”
From scout team to redshirting to being inches away from getting his first field action, there were constant reminders that he was still only a walk-on.
“They got to eat, and I didn’t,” Hughley said. “After practice, when everybody goes to the training table where people go eat, the walk-ons couldn’t eat.”
After practice, Hughley left and either picked up food on the way home or ate alone at his kitchen table.
However, a rule was passed in April 2014 by the Division I Legislative Council that now allows every player, whether a walk-on or a scholarship player, to have food provided to them.
Scholarship players also receive financial benefits that are not given to every player on the team.
“The guys who were on scholarship received $300-$390 a month,” Hughley said. “When you look at the grand scheme, it’s nothing, but now we get a ‘cost of living expense’ every month, and it is getting better.”
This “cost of living expense” is formally called the “cost of attendance stipend,” which was recently passed by a nearly unanimous 79-1 vote at the NCAA Convention in January 2015. It is considered to be the equivalent to a paycheck that an employee would receive for a typical job. Along with free tuition, this stipend is used to recruit top high school athletes around the nation.
The stipend that the Louisville scholarship athletes receive is one of the highest in the country. These particular players earn over $5,300 annually, one of the most generous amounts in Division I.
Even though Tobijah plays as a starter now, the nature of playing center doesn’t make things easy.
“It wears down on your body for sure,” Hughley explained. “It’s more of a mental thing. The physicality is tough, but you work on that in the offseason when it comes to conditioning and weightlifting.”
Hughley has had to adjust to several quarterbacks over this past season, with true freshman Lamar Jackson and Kyle Bolin playing more of late.
“For me, I didn’t think it was that hard. The coaches do a good job making sure all of the quarterbacks get reps in practice, so I can just feel how they are feeling every time in our exchange,” Hughley said. “To me, it isn’t that big of a deal, and I’m familiar with all them.”
Not only does Hughley help his team during a game, but he works hard at being a good teammate off the field as well.
“Tobijah is a great guy on and off the field ever since I’ve gotten to Louisville,” said Khalil Hunter, an offensive tackle for Louisville. Hunter is also, like Hughley, a walk-on, “He’s always been a leader to me and the team, and I can honestly say he’s my best friend here.”
Hughley started making an impact in high school and has never looked back since.
Life after football is always the biggest question mark for any student-athlete at both the high school and collegiate level. According to the NCAA, there are over 460,000 student-athletes around the United States, and the probability of making it to the professional level or getting drafted is small. Over one million high school students played football this past season, and under seven percent of those players will play college football. After college, the chances get thinner, as under two percent of college athletes play professionally.
“We work too hard to not want to go to the NFL, but if that doesn’t work out, it’ll be alright,” Hughley said. “I’ve made it a lot farther than anyone expected. Who would’ve thought a former Georgetown College signee would be starting at the University of Louisville?”
Hughley is a redshirt junior this season and an academic senior. He hopes to get his Masters degree in either business or education. Hughley graduates from Louisville in December.
“I just want to be remembered as a hard worker, someone who valued their education and came to Louisville to get his degree first,” said Hughley. “I want to be known as someone that loved playing football, and finally, someone that values God, their family, and their friends.”
Words By: Jordan Gould